Education Department must be held accountable for FAFSA failures

The name Richard Cordray may not be the most recognizable name in the Biden administration, but in his capacity as chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid, he has overseen what is among the administration’s greatest failures.

Under Cordray’s watch, the U.S. Department of Education launched a new edition of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application was supposed to be the start of a new era where students would be able to fill out their financial aid applications with greater ease and would be eligible for better aid packages.

Instead, this new FAFSA has been plagued by error after error, delay after delay, and failure after failure, all of which have severely harmed the ability of students and families to prepare adequately for college and make informed decisions about their future in higher education.

Cordray and the Department of Education’s failure competently to rollout the new FAFSA application can be traced all the way back to the first days of the Biden administration, when the new administration was tasked with implementing the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was passed by Congress in late December 2020.

The new law stipulated that the simplified FAFSA application should be rolled out in time for the 2024-2025 school year, which meant the Biden administration, the Department of Education, and the Office of Federal Student Aid had more than two years to prepare the launch of this new online application on Oct. 1, 2023.

Cordray took over as the COO of the Office of Federal Student Aid in May 2021, a full 29 months before the new FAFSA application was scheduled to be launched. But nearly two years later, in March 2023, the Department of Education announced that it would miss the normal launch day for the FAFSA application and said the rollout of the new application was delayed indefinitely. This was the first major failure of the new FAFSA rollout.

It was not until November, a full eight months later, that the FSA office finally announced that the application would go live by Dec. 31, throwing the entire student financial aid calendar behind by three full months.

The dates for the FAFSA rollout are important for several reasons, but especially because they create a manageable timeline for students to get their financial aid awards packages in time to make an informed decision about where they would like to attend college. Thanks to Cordray and FSA’s incompetence, that was thrown into flux.

When the application for the upcoming school year launches on time on Oct. 1, the Department of Education collects the data from completed applications. Usually after the first of the new year, the department will begin sharing that data with the student’s chosen institutions so that students can receive their financial aid letter by the end of March. This ensures that the students can make their final decisions about where to attend school in a timely fashion and the institutions are able to meet their enrollment quotas for each incoming class.

Instead, because of the delays in the rollout, institutions did not begin to receive student financial aid data until March, the very month students were supposed to receive their award letters. But the department’s failures did not end there.

When the application first went live, it was riddled with glitches that took more than a week to resolve. Then, after the application was finally stable, the department continued to announce numerous errors with the transmission of student data, thus affecting the value of the financial aid packages made available to hundreds of thousands of students.

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To this day, as FSA and the Department of Education continue to announce that they have corrected more glitches and failures with the new FAFSA, students are still waiting for financial aid letters while colleges and universities everywhere are wondering if they will have a sufficient number of students to fill their classrooms this fall. But amid this display of incompetence, there has been no accountability.

If Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has any interest in sending a signal to students, families, and colleges, he should force Richard Cordray to vacate his office and install a new COO for FSA that will fix the FAFSA mess and restore confidence in this critical office relied upon by millions.

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